The recent appalling Barcelona terror attacks, which involved a white van smashing into people on Las Ramblas leaving 13 people dead and over 100 injured, and an Audi A3 car ploughing into pedestrians in the popular seaside resort town of Cambrils, leads to question whether we are witnessing a significant rise in vehicle terrorism.
This has been a new trend of street violence that challenges the authorities’ preventive strategies and carries out mass terror and collective murder. Using a vehicle is also a platform of modern militancy’s cultural expression and becomes a transnational phenomenon of terror – a hardcore element within the masses of exuberant militants that spilled blood and fear on our streets from Britain to Nice, Barcelona, and beyond.
It is, however, necessary to look beyond the recurring use of the vehicle and explore its symbolic connotation as a territorial medium of violence with immediate and accurate effect of violating physical spaces, invading bodily and spatial boundaries and territories, and bypassing the secrecy normally attached to any militants attack.
A new identity
The use of a vehicle as a terror weapon is giving modern militancy a new identity, and offering a communal trend among ISIS militants that differs in essence to the conventional methods of terrorism performed by its preceding groups like al-Qaeda.
Although 9/11 attack utilized a “vehicle” – the Boeing 767 which crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center – but it was more of a attack on a larger scale targeting the economy and the legacy of the United States. Civilians were the causalities but not the main target.
Barcelona’s attack targeted mainly random non-combatants civilians to terrorize and mutilate them. The use of the vehicle in Barcelona serves the militants “mutilation” strategy. From beheading to stabbing, from using machetes and knives to ploughing crowds with a van, the group’s terrorist dynamic has always been about bodily mutilation.
As the narrative of militant new trends unfold, the conventional suicide bombing where militants are expected to offer up their bodies to ISIS as vessels for explosives is now twisted by using the vehicle, which facilitates using the victims’ bodies as vessels for mutilation to serve the cause.
This twist acquires the militants’ embryonic dynamic to depart from ideological conventional roles as to acquire a role in the modern militant syndicate. Militants like Barcelona’s Driss Oukabir, who has a criminal record, and Khalid Masood of Westminster attack, who was convicted of multiple offences spanning 20 years, rejuvenate the old phenomenon of phansigars.
The “thuggee or tuggee” known through history with their bloody terror, operating as gangs of rubbery, tricking and strangling their preys. They were featured in Ziyā-ud-Dīn Baranī's History of Fīrūz Shāh, dated around 1356.
The war against terror is territorial because ISIS is not an ideological rhetoric but rather a militant group that will keep targeting our streetsDr. Halla Diyab
While thuggee was a secret cult whose members worshipped Kali, the deity of destruction, the modern militants of Barcelona yet operate in groups. They are more of cult of assassins serving ISIS ideology of collective destruction and mass murder, and they differ from al-Qaeda precedents of suicide bombers.
A similar syndicate was used by London Bridge militant-trio who ploughed into pedestrians on the bridge using a hired van, before stabbing revelers in pubs and bars in Borough Market on Saturday night killing seven people and injuring 48. This explains the recurring use of fake suicide belts by Barcelona and London bridge militants to visualize their progressions from the bounds of traditional old-school generation of suicide bombers, and mark their thuggee syndicate.
There is a territorial element to ISIS’s modern vehicle terrorism symbolized either by using territorial weapons or targeting territories that of a symbolic significance to their existence. Territorially Spain holds an important place in the extremist ideology due to its symbolic legacy where Muslims ruled over a period of 800 years before been forced out.
So it is no coincidence that the Spanish coastal town where the second Barcelona attack took place was also the place where two of the masterminds of 9/11 met in 2001. However, ISIS’s territorial battle includes seeing Spain as part of its final caliphate, like it was in the 15th century.
The battle of Spain and the loss of Andalusia have featured in ISIS’ publication, and attacking Spain symbolizes for the group a territorial invasion and at the same time a triumph in parallel to the group’s recent territorial defeat in the so called Caliphate’s two main strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Unlike al-Qaeda, the group’s militancy is territorial not ideological.
As a cult, they thrive on savage militancy rather on ideological devotion, and their current atrocities in Barcelona is an example of how militant violence has grown to be an outward territorial facet of ISIS.
The group’s physical methods of terrorism is by no means far harder to predict but also that far harder to prevent. However, restricting cars’ and vans’ driving into pedestrian designated areas, and points of crowd’s attraction could minimize the risk of vehicle terrorism. But with the brutality of the terrorist group is growing to thrive on small scale atrocities, it is difficult to predict what territorial weapon they will resort to next.
The recurring vehicle methods of terrorism imply that we have not learned the lesson yet, and states’ policies fail to see that the war against terrorism in all its facets is not only ideological war which can be deterred by a preventive strategy or empowering community cohesion.
The war against terror is territorial because ISIS is not an ideological rhetoric but rather a militant group that will keep targeting our streets harder, bigger and bloodier.
Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. Dr. Halla Diyab is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. Her Twitter handle is @drhalladiyab.